February 10, 2010

Backing up your data: the computer owner's prime directive

Actually, not pouring Coke into the vent, or not using your CD/DVD drive as a cup holder, might rank higher, but not by much.

Anyway. I assume that you're backing up your My Documents folder and all of its subfolders on a regular basis. If not, please move along and continue driving while blindfolded. Just don't be surprise at the unexpected deceleration certain to occur. However, even if you are anal about backing up your data, restoring a hard drive to the state you like it best can take a while: reinstalling programs; changing system settings and wallpapers; and recreating your email contact list and browser favorites. These things all take time. There are ways around this problem, though, and some of them are free. These methods involve creating an exact image of your hard drive and then installing that image either onto your existing hard drive or, in case of a crash, onto a new one. Boot up and everything looks exactly the same, with all of your programs and settings intact. The only thing missing would be any files or programs added/updated since you last imaged your hard drive.

Now, how do you go about this? Well, I have strong affection for Norton's Ghost, even though it costs money. It not only creates perfect images, it does so quickly. However, Ghost is commercial and some might see that as a negative. Not me, though. It works so well that I find the investment completely worthwhile. Let me state for the record that I'm somewhat less positive on the newer versions of Ghost. They're prettier and the GUIs look fabulous, but I don't find them as easy to use as previous versions. This is why I still run a copy of Ghost v.11. It's an older DOS-based program and it requires you to use some care when installing the image onto a hard drive: if you screw up, you cannot recover.  But it works extremely well and I'm pretty careful with my data. If you are too, then by all means use Ghost.

Let's suppose though that you really don't want to spend any money, but you really like the idea of creating a perfect image of your hard drive. In that case, I recommend Clonezilla. It's Open Source and therefore free, although they do accept donations and you might think about tossing some change in to thank the developers. Up to you, of course.

What is Clonezilla? Well, I'll let the website give you the skinny:

Clonezilla, based on DRBL, Partition Image, ntfsclone, partclone, and udpcast, allows you to do bare metal backup and recovery. Two types of Clonezilla are available, Clonezilla live and Clonezilla SE (server edition). Clonezilla live is suitable for single machine backup and restore. While Clonezilla SE is for massive deployment, it can clone many (40 plus!) computers simultaneously. Clonezilla saves and restores only used blocks in the harddisk. This increases the clone efficiency. At the NCHC's Classroom C, Clonezilla SE was used to clone 41 computers simultaneously. It took only about 10 minutes to clone a 5.6 GBytes system image to all 41 computers via multicasting!

Features of Clonezilla

  • Free (GPL) Software.
  • Filesystem supported: ext2, ext3, ext4, reiserfs, xfs, jfs of GNU/Linux, FAT, NTFS of MS Windows, and HFS+ of Mac OS. Therefore you can clone GNU/Linux, MS windows and Intel-based Mac OS, no matter it's 32-bit (x86) or 64-bit (x86-64) OS. For these file systems, only used blocks in partition are saved and restored. For unsupported file system, sector-to-sector copy is done by dd in Clonezilla.
  • LVM2 (LVM version 1 is not) under GNU/Linux is supported.
  • Multicast is supported in Clonezilla SE, which is suitable for massively clone. You can also remotely use it to save or restore a bunch of computers if PXE and Wake-on-LAN are supported in your clients.
  • Based on Partimage, ntfsclone, partclone, and dd to clone partition. However, clonezilla, containing some other programs, can save and restore not only partitions, but also a whole disk.
  • By using another free software drbl-winroll, which is also developed by us, the hostname, group, and SID of cloned MS windows machine can be automatically changed.


  • The destination partition must be equal or larger than the source one.
  • Differential/incremental backup is not implemented yet.
  • Online imaging/cloning is not implemented yet. The partition to be imaged or cloned has to be unmounted.
  • Software RAID/fake RAID is not supported by default. It's can be done manually only.
For most of you, I recommend Clonezilla Live. You can boot from an optical drive or a thumb drive and back up your Windows, Mac or Linux hard drive. Be sure to read all of the documentation before you start. Since Clonezilla is a Linux-based system, the way that drives are named may not be familiar to you. In fact, you might want to print out all of the steps to back up AND restore and image before you begin.  What I'd really like to suggest is for you to test this on a system that you don't use that much, or have outgrown and upgraded. That way, if you screw up, you're still fine. However, that may not be feasible for most people, so I will only suggest -strongly- that you use this software wisely. That way, if your system should choose to crap itself in the future, you're only a few hours away from being up and running again.

One final note: Be sure to create new images on a semi-regular basis, especially if you install lots of new hardware and/or software. Otherwise, you'll spend a lot of time post-restore installing new drivers and updating program settings. Not that that has every happened to me, of course. ::cough-cough:: Also, if you can swing it, alternate the place where you store your images, such as two separate external hard drives. That way, if one dies, you're no more than one image away from the present.

Happy computing.

Update: Based on a comment from VW Bug, I've decided to update this post with backup, rather than mirroring, software. You want scheduled backups? You want incremental backups (only what's changed)? Then I've got some software for you.

First up is SyncBack Freeware V3.2.20.0. Scroll down to the freeware utilities at the 2BrightSparks download page to get it. Be sure to grab the PDF help file while you're at it. I recommend creating 3 folders named Daily, Weekly and Monthly on your external repository and use them accordingly. Read the documentation (caution: PDF) to get more info.

EZBack-it-up looks pretty good, but it hasn't been updated since November 2004. No file compression, just straight data copy. This looks to be a decent choice, but I haven't played with it enough to give it my seal of approval.

Cobian Backup is:

The Cobian Backup software is an advanced utility that can even schedule backup times and backup to other drives in the same computer or to another computer through network connections and even through the FTP. What is interesting about this software is that there are two different versions of it; there is an application version and a service version. It is quite a lightweight program that runs in the background and keeps up with the schedule that you gave it. It will periodically copy your files in an original or a compressed mode with numerous compression types in a secure and encrypted format.
What is ICE Mirror? This:

This utility creates or maintains an exact duplicate of the original directory. ICE Mirror will compare the mirrored directory to the master directory and correct any disparities. ICE Mirror allows ultra fast mirroring because it performs incremental updates. In other words it only copies files that have changed. If only a few files have been updated, it performs very fast.

Also ICE Mirror allows making differential updates. The differential updates are very useful if you are use read-only media (CD-R, DVD-R, DVD+R, etc.). There are two steps in differential updates:

1. Comparison the master directory and the mirrored directory.
2. Copying all new files from the master directory to the secondary mirrored directory.

In other words it only copies files that have changed in the mirrored directory to the secondary mirrored directory.

Well, there are more, but these should get you started. Remember that the time to think about backing up your data is before you say the words, "Oh shit!" Consider yourself warned.

Posted by Physics Geek at February 10, 2010 01:34 PM | TrackBack StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble It!

I've always been a big fan of partimage (which clonezilla is based on). But clonezilla & partimage both suffer from the same trouble -- a dense user interface that puts off alot of people, even experienced users.

We created a graphical wrapper to make creating bare metal backups easier. We called our tool Kleo. It's a wizard interface that walks you through the backup process, even mounting remote network shares if you'd like to send backups to a server.

Kleo is bundled with our LiveCD project, the Carroll-Net Server Recovery Kit. Both are free for any use.


Posted by: Jim C. at February 10, 2010 04:06 PM

Solar eneragy is the future for the planet.
solar water pump

Posted by: solar energy facts at February 11, 2010 05:56 PM

Can you come to my house and fix my computers?

I have beer.

Posted by: Daphne at February 12, 2010 07:26 PM

I don't want a ghost image. I just want a backup with incrementals of my data. Any suggestions? The stuff that comes with the external drives sucks and doesn't restore incrementals properly. The other stuff I looked at on-line is all 'all or nothing'. Yes I'm willing to pay money but nothing seems to do what I would really like. Again, any suggestions?

Posted by: vw bug at February 13, 2010 10:52 AM


Any time. However, I'm not certain that we live that close, physically anyway.


Incremental backups? I assume that you want just data ans such. Online services like Carbonite are pretty good in that regard. One full backup followed by incremental scheduled backups. However, if you want to do it... hmm. I back up my data, too, but the full image has been a godsend. I hate trying to reinstall and update everything. Let me noodle on it and I'll get back to you with my recommendations.

Jim C.,

Thanks. I and some of my geeky friends will check it out. If we like it, I'll definitely post an update about it. I'm always on the lookout for more and better tools.

Posted by: physics geek at February 14, 2010 05:00 PM

No worries.

vw bg -- You might want to check out rsync. It has alot of great features, and of course it's open source.

Jim C.

Posted by: Jim C. at February 17, 2010 10:55 PM